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Branding Success

 Hong Kong character Fatina, by Chocolate Rain, has been finding success overseas, collaborating with 

Hong Kong character Fatina, by Chocolate Rain, has been finding success overseas, collaborating with the Royal Mail and Marks & Spencer

Shoppers at Telford Plaza in Kowloon east are gearing up for the holidays with Christmas wreaths and festive slogans. You won't see Santa or snowmen, though. Instead, the smiling face of a Hong Kong character, Fatina, beams out at shoppers. She is part of brand crossovers, which, in recent years, have linked independent design firms with consumer retailers throughout Asia and beyond. 

In Hong Kong, companies that focus on a set of graphic characters with a matching design aesthetic are appearing everywhere. In the case of Chocolate Rain, Fatina figures have been added to everything from Octopus smart cards to envelopes, while furniture and clothing that draw from the character's distinctive patchwork aesthetic are sold in pop-up shops and boutiques. 

Local Character

Behind the boom are short-term crossover partnerships between licensors and clothing, jewellery, furniture and other consumer-goods manufacturers. Such short-term partnerships in Hong Kong are a necessity, according to Chocolate Rain Project Manager Janice Liu. "Hong Kong people can get bored very quickly. Our partners are always looking for new things; they rarely repeat. It keeps their brands growing as well." For licensors and licensees, the local market is dynamic. 

Chocolate Rain has also been finding success overseas, where long-term licensing partnerships are more common. In the United Kingdom, the company spun off the Fatina character into her own line, called Fatina Dreams, producing the “I Love London” series of postcards for the British Museum in 2010. Its UK team also recently secured a two-year licensing agreement with Marks & Spencer, producing ladies’ casual wear to stock in the department store’s UK shops. 

Fatina, the character at the centre of the Chocolate Rain design, started out as a cost-effective way of promoting the company's custom jewellery line. When counterfeiters began copying its designs, Chocolate Rain founder Prudence Mak realised that, to last in the market, she needed a stronger product, backed by a brand image. Fatina was it. 

Counter-Consumer Brand

Ms Mak drew from her childhood as a tailor's daughter to create the brand. With her patchwork dresses and stitch-lined motifs, Fatina and her seemingly countless friends recall a time in Hong Kong where many things were made by hand. In a twist of culture, this counter-consumer sentiment has proven a hit with Hong Kong shoppers, who find that the romantic ideals of simple, homey design speaks to them. "They see it as a Hong Kong brand, or a Hong Kong element,” Ms Liu said. “That's why they have such a strong feeling about it." 

Power of Design

International brands and characters find regional partners at the HKTDC Hong Kong Licensing Show  

International brands and characters find regional partners at the HKTDC Hong Kong Licensing Show

In Asia, where consumers have long been drawn to brand prestige, the new design-led crossovers are the latest phase of development. "Younger consumers have acquired a sophistication, so they are not necessarily going after the big brands,” says Dr Edmund Lee, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Design Centre. “They are looking for something that has character, some cultural dimension, some uniqueness." 

Characters and other design-motifs have the power to connect with consumers by giving a face to the values and aspirations of shoppers. Many fashion and media companies have worked hard to develop such a relationship with their own line of products. Now, they are also drawing on designers’ fan base. Stores keep the names of independent designers alongside their own brands, a sign that retail spaces are becoming platforms for design instead of house-brand-only spaces, according to Dr Lee. 

Producers of consumer-focused products, however, should be careful not to mistake design partnerships as silver bullets, Dr Lee says. "Brand-building is both art and science and requires a lot of insight on the market and user groups. The brand-building journey can be tortuous," he adds. Still, for established licensors and licensees, a partnership can fast-track expansion into new areas with less risk than a from-scratch campaign. 

Fame and Fortune

 Edmund Lee

Dr Edmund Lee, Executive Director, Hong Kong Design Centre

The potential of character licensing is growing in Hong Kong with great potential to develop, according to Jacky Lee, Managing Director at the tobyHK workshop, a design firm that focuses on creating characters for promotional and direct licensing. “Hong Kong is just like a start-up market, but the government, licensors and agents all see it as up and coming. Right now,  Hong Kong design is still famous among locals only, but I think it can jump into the international market within five years.”

Like many character design houses, the tobyHK workshop has created cartoon creatures with edge: skull-headed bunnies wave from T-shirts and posters, blank-faced human figures called “Happy Qin” seem somehow ironic. Such nuance is not generally the domain of major retailers, but the company’s partnerships in Hong Kong are extensive. Recently, it produced a series of four sports characters for clothing retailer Giordano, which featured in-store sculptures that look like pop-art.

Crossover partnerships allow retailers to take on messages and audiences outside their usual domain. For design houses, the hope is to find the magical combination that makes the next Hello Kitty. “As many licensing agency will visit the Hong Kong International Licensing Show, it is a good chance for us to show off our design and service. We hope to find an agency to cooperate with us to develop our characters and make them famous in the future,” says Mr Lee.

This fame is what motivates everyone involved, even the customers. As Dr Lee puts it: "When you go into a shopping mall, or when you see a product, your instant split-second feeling is: wow. Not many products can create that kind of reaction, but that's what drives business and is the challenge for the designer – to create that 'wow' experience."

tobyhk workshop will be among the more than 200 exhibitors at the HKTDC Hong Kong International Licensing Show, 7-9 January 2013.

Related Links
Chocolate Rain 
HKTDC Hong Kong International Licensing Show 
tobyhk workshop Ltd

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